Deaf people: reading and thinking

Iris Berent


Usha Goswami

Yes, I realised that the example of the written word was of a different concept. I did not mean it to back up my OP about the thought process, more to answer Monty’s first reply about mu understanding of the deaf languages.

I guess I’m a pretty heavy thinker (that is, I think a lot, not that I am particularly intelligent), and I ‘hear’ myself talking to myself so much - that I began to think what it would be like for someone who had never heard a voice, so I posted a question.

It’s something I’ve wondered about for years as I found the concept of thinking without an innner voice a strange concept.

Damn - mental note to self - don’t over-use the word ‘concept’.

I think I see what you’re getting at here. When you think, you have an inner monologue, in English, that is the core processor of your thinking. You’re now wondering how this works for deaf people. Am I close?

Assuming so, there’s a few notions to dispel.

First and foremost is the idea that you’re thinking in English. This is incorrect. A more accurate way to approach this is that people “think” in a code appropriate to the task at hand. When I’m reading/writing/talking in English, I’m thinking in the natural language of English. However, when I paint, I think in hues, colours, and textures. When I’m programming, I tend to think in the commands and codes of whatever language I happen to be using (usually a string of explicatives that would make a sailor proud).

With respect to deaf people, it seems reasonable to assume that when a deaf person is communicating in Sign, then they’re thinking in Sign. If a deaf person, who doesn’t have a high level of English tries to communicate in Eng., it seems quite reasonable for them to fall back on Sign to get their point across. This would explain why their writing may seem jumbled. However, if you have a deaf person who’s fluent in English, then when their communicating in English they’ll be thinking in English (dre2xl’s above post being an interesting elaboration of this point).

This question has come up a few times before but at the moment I can only find one link.

This is an interesting question, however it’s almost impossible to answer. How would someone with no knowledge of language be able to communicate their ability to think? Even further, how would you communicate how you think? It’s a difficult task for even people who have been exposed to language. I think the only possible way to answer this question would be to talk to someone who previously had no knowledge of language and ask them how they thought before. Otherwise, I don’t know.

" With respect to deaf people, it seems reasonable to assume that when a deaf person is communicating in Sign, then they’re thinking in Sign."

Well, not me for one…did you notice sign language is a pictorial language? It’s basically pictures so I often think in pictures, its a whole lot faster than thinking in words.

" “a”, “an”, “the”, etc. She also used to drop words that acted to join sentence parts, too. I always assumed sign-language didn’t have these words."

It does & I use them. Matter of fact I use ‘at’ too, although Im not quite sure why :slight_smile:

Belrix: There are quite a few Sign Languages, ASL being merely one of them. It’s possible that in at least one of them, there may be words for the indefinite article. Of course, I’m not aware of any; I’m just saying it’s possible.

handy: Thanks! I guess I should’ve said “I’m not aware of any others.”

Monty, I tutor a sign language class & one thing I learned is that signs vary from one book to another. On they have a nice book ‘Signing in Fourteen Languages’ (about $15) which is very nice. There is another one that shows how the sign for one word changes from one state to another & it’s all alot to take in.

Excellent, handy!

To return that favour of information, let me mention something in your town. The public library in Pacific Grove has an interesting book giving the manual alphabet for quite a number of languages.

Also, if you find yourself in San Francisco or San Jose any time, go to Kinokuniya Bookstore. They have a couple of books (in Japanese) teaching JSL. The one I got was written for children, so it has plenty of pictures to explain the words presented.

OK, I’ll bite. What’s a pictorial languge? I’ve not really bumped into this term before and my usual sources don’t seem to be helping.

How would you respond to my second query:

You can always spell out words not covered by existing signs when necessary surely ?

ChalkPit: Perhaps, but then that’s just like saying, “You could always insert a French word for something that doesn’t have a word in English.” Problem is, what do you do if the person you’re communicating with doesn’t speak French? English (or in the case of my example, French can only be a crutch if the other person knows that language.

I think very many people don’t really understand that Sign Languages are, in fact & not just in theory, different languages than the oral languages in the same area.

"What’s a pictorial languge? "

You make pictures with your hands, its very handy.

I spell alot of words out cause that’s the only way to show abstract thoughts or scientific stuff or latin words.

American Sign Language doesn’t have the same number of closely related semi-synonyms that English does. But that shouldn’t be surprising, since languages don’t share the same words. There are probably hundreds of languages that don’t have two words with the exact same connotations that english “sparkle” and “scintillate” do. ASL has fewer signs than English has words. But, ASL allows you to do more with those signs than English does. In English you indicate intensity by pitch…how loud you say something, how you say it, as well as the exact word you choose. Huge, HUGE, HUUUUUUGE, big, really freakin big, enormous, gigantic, titanic, etc. In ASL you typically have one base sign. But that base sign can be modified. It can be done fast, slow, bigger, smaller, move around in space, etc. If you want to communicate an exact English word, you have to fingerspell, but if you just want to communicate the idea you can modify the sign “big” to mean big, really big, really really big, kinda big, etc.

As mentioned, ASL has a completely different structure than English, different vocabulary, different grammar, different structure, different idioms. But there are invented systems of Signed English that are intended to allow total translation of English into sign, including new signs for all the articles and little bits of speech that don’t really exist in ASL. Synonyms are indicated by initialized hand shapes. For example, you’d make the same sign as ASL “big”, but if you have the handshape “G” it means gigantic, if you have “H” it means huge, etc. And there are different signs to indicate past tense, prefixes and suffixes, etc that are indicated different ways in ASL. Not all words have invented signed english equivalents, and those are typically fingerspelled.

My Deaf nephew grew up using signed english, and it has worked very well for him. The main purpose of signed english is to help kids learn english structure, to make it much easier to learn to read and write english. Since ASL hasn’t had a written form until recently, and even now it isn’t widely used, most Deaf people use written English. But since many ASL signers have never really learned English they often have trouble reading and writing English.

And one more thing. Deaf people are often very defensive about ASL, and for good reason. Hearing people are only recently understanding that sign languages are valid and necessary languages. The oralist movement in the 20th century tried to ban signing, since they felt it would hinder deaf kids from learning to lip read and use voice. Of course this was a huge fallacy, but many Deaf people grew up having to fight for the right to sign. Add in residential schools (since most Deaf kids have hearing parents), and poor written english skills and you have a fairly tight-knit isolated defensive community.

<<However, when I paint, I think in hues, colours, and textures. When I’m programming, I tend to think in the commands and codes of whatever language I happen to be using>>

One theory is that people have a sensory preference or preferences. They can be mainly or relatively inclined to think verbally, visually or tactily. Guess which preference benefits you the most during typical schooling. I think that “tactile” also includes kinesthetic and spatial thinking. When planning a route to drive, for instance, I never think of the sound of the names of the streets. I get a flash of the look of the intersections I’ll have to turn at with a feeling of the direction of the turn.

Back when I was delivering pizzas, there were typical routes that just became encoded mentally in one lump. When planning, I’d only have to connect the specifics of the end of the delivery. Bing, bing, bing - it was a lot faster than hearing street names in my head. I’d never have made bonus waiting to hear it all.

Hi dre2xl - it’s good that you posted… I’m interested in how you think…
I was wondering what these printed words are like… do they have a colour? Do they look like typed words or handwritten? Are they uppercase or upper and lower case - or lower case…? Do you see one word at a time… or a couple at once…? Do you read the words from left to right in your head? Do the words somehow include emotional information? e.g. maybe the words are capitalized for angry/shouting things, italics for emphasis, etc. For people who can hear, we can hear the pitch (low/high or bass/treble), etc, of the speaker… and when I think of spoken words I sometimes imagine the pitch of the voice as well.
I’m interested in what the experience is like…
Have you always been totally deaf? Did you originally think using sign language and then began to think using printed words? I guess that’s a bit like someone who moves to a different country and eventually starts to think using the new language they’ve learnt…

Great explanation. Thanks!

Just a note - I argued with my engineering school, who started to require foreign language credit for graduation, that ASL was a foreign language and should count toward the requirement. I lost - although the point was moot because I could “grandfather” in the old requirements & exclude the language requirement.